Finding Peace: A Letter Brings Two Families Closure After A Childhood Tragedy
MILLARD COUNTY, Utah – Throughout the month of November, KSL has been showing stories about people searching for answers and finding peace. Sometimes, the search for understanding continues even after death for family members left behind.
The Holden Cemetery in Millard County sits atop a hill with sweeping views of the valley. Brent Sampson is walking in a place his father; Blaine Sampson walked many times.
“It’s not your usual cemetery in my family,” Sampson said as he scanned the rows of headstones.
This is a journey that spans nine decades and changed the lives of two families forever.
“This is hallowed ground,” Brent Sampson said. “I just have this feeling.”
Shame, grief, and sadness can change the shape of one’s soul.
“Who knows what our reaction would’ve been?” Brent Sampson asked out loud. “There was certainly shock when we described the letter.”
This isn’t an easy story to tell.
“This is a letter that my father wrote back in 1974,” Brent Sampson said as he held a neatly written letter in his hands. “We found it in a bunch of his effects as we were going through his things.”
The letter was only discovered after his father, Blaine Sampson died from old age. It tells a tragic story from his childhood.
On May 29, 1930, Blaine Sampson and his best friend, Howard, were both 12 years old. These are the words he wrote:
“Before we left the cabin (in Holden), Howard took the gun, loaded it and gave it to me to carry,” the letter explains.
The two boys were up early that spring day to let the sheep graze in the rolling hills east of Holden.
“Howard suggested they get warm and run around and play,” Brent Sampson explained.
As the boys ran and hid among the brush that cool morning, the rifle in Blaine Sampson’s hand discharged unexpectedly, hitting his best friend.
“The bullet struck him squarely in the forehead,” Brent Sampson read from his father’s letter.
The death certificate states the shooting was accidental; just a horrible tragedy. However, Blaine Sampson never forgave himself. The death was written about in all the local papers, word eventually reaching all the way to Salt Lake City.
“He had to have been just devastated,” Brent Sampson said through tears.
Blaine Sampson chose not to speak of those events for the rest of his life.
“I was 4 and a half years old when my brother, Howard, died,” said Barbara Stephenson from the living room of her Murray home.
Stephenson is now 94 years old.
“I’ll cry when I tell you this,” she said.
The events following her brother’s death remain clear.
“I remember as a child, the day of the funeral,” she said. “I remember going up to Blaine as he was sitting in the parlor in Holden next to the casket. I remember the casket was white with Howard in it and Blaine was sitting close by. I went up to him and asked him why he killed my brother. Can you imagine what that did to him? But what did I know?”
A short time later, Blaine Sampson was sent to live with family in another town.
“I do remember we never blamed Blaine Sampson for the death of my brother,” Barbara Stephenson said.
Sitting beside Stephenson in her home is her nephew, Howard Stephenson. He is named for the uncle he never got to meet.
“There were never any feelings of resentment,” Howard Stephenson said. “He was not blamed. I had a certain pride in me being the one chosen one to carry on that name.”
Howard and Barbara Stephenson knew some of what happened so long ago but knew nothing of the letter and the heaviness Blaine Sampson carried for so many years. Then, a knock at the door.
“Hi, I’m Brent Sampson, I’m Blaine Sampson’s son,” Brent Sampson said as he gave a bouquet of yellow tulips over to Barbara Stephenson.
The two families tied together through tragedy for so long met finally for the first time. The Stephenson’s have wanted to hear the letter for themselves.
Brent Sampson begins to read in part:
“I’ve relived the moment a million times, kneeling and sobbing over my best friend as he lay dying in the tall grass,” he saye his father’s words and the Stephenson’s listen intently.
“I remember vividly standing alone at the cemetery near the open grave as they lowered the casket and watched the lips of Mrs. Stephenson form the words, ‘my boy, my boy’.”
Hearing Blaine Sampson’s letter for the first time breathes new life into a chapter never quite closed.
“It just touched my heart so much to think that he carried that with him in his life and it wasn’t something that he could find closure to during his life,” Howard Stephenson said. “I feel very strongly that he’s aware of what’s happening right now and he’s probably celebrating that we have gotten together.
Barbara Stephenson cried softly as Brent Sampson handed over the letter to her and kissed her forehead.
“I’m so grateful for this,” she said. “Thank you forever.”
Back at the cemetery in Holden, the fall weather isn’t too unlike that day so long ago. Brent Sampson has finally found the tombstone of Howard Stephenson, buried next to the boy’s parents.
He wishes things had been different.
“If my dad were here today, I would definitely put my arms around him and tell him that it’s ok,” Brent Sampson said.
While this story has spanned decades and across families, it is also close to KSL. Brent Sampson is News Specialist Ashley Kewish’s father, and Blaine Sampson is her grandfather.
I don’t fully understand why my grandfather chose to keep the pain all inside and never seek comfort from our family – maybe I’ll never know. I felt like I owed it to both my grandfather and to Howard to try and learn more. I felt like our families were supposed to meet. I do know one thing for sure, it is never too late to search for understanding, closure, and to finally find peace. – Ashley Kewish